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Construction Workers Struggle with a High Prevalence of Mental Health Issue

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It is a harsh reality that people working in the construction industry, are disproportionately affected by mental health issues. 

According to recent research by both PwC and MATES in Construction, construction workers are over twice as likely as any other people in Australia to commit suicide. It is one of the worst industries for substance abuse amongst employees, and the prevalence of anxiety amongst those working in the industry is over 20 per cent.

As one of the largest employers in Australia, accounting for over 625,000 jobs across the country, the issue of mental health in construction is slowly gaining greater attention at both industry and government level.

The ROI incentives are there, as indicated in PwC’s report, but each year Australian businesses continue to lose $10.9 billion by neglecting the issue of mental health in the workplace. In the construction industry, businesses will see an average return of $2.50 for every $1 invested in initiatives to improve mental health of employees.

It’s an Industry-wide Concern

With suicide rates so much higher than average, recent years have seen a growing interest in understanding why construction workers are at such risk. MATES in Construction, a not-for-profit organisation founded to address the high levels of suicide among Australian construction workers points to a number of core factors. 

Firstly, in a male-dominated industry, poor well-being and depression are often stigmatised in the face of ‘manly’ stereotypes that construction workers are expected to embody. This stigmatisation is amplified by the barriers to communication with coworkers and managers created by the working environment, along with the highly transient working conditions.

Typically, most construction workers are employed on a project-by-project basis, which might span from just a few weeks up to a few years. With regularly changing work crews, employees are often less likely to forge close working relationships, where peers are able to notice changes in behavior or mood more easily.

Other contributing factors include lack of awareness, lack of the right tools to identify mental health issues amongst peers and lack of comfortable environments to discuss such issues openly.

Commitment to Change

A recent announcement from the Turnbull Government in May pledged to provide $47 million in funding, to 'boost frontline services for suicide prevention and directly address a growing community need'.

The funding will be directed to 17 mental health groups in Australia, and is intended to provide country-wide training and support for emergency response services, support groups, at-risk families and communities proven to be experiencing specific issues. Investment will also be made in research and communication campaigns to assist those at risk. 

This injection of funding for suicide prevention and mental health support swiftly followed a $75 billion commitment from 2017 to 2027 in the latest Federal Budget for the development of infrastructure across Australia. Meanwhile, new large-scale projects are continually being announced, such as the recent funding injection of $244 million for the transformation of the Art Gallery of NSW.  

Indeed, it is possible that this increase in infrastructure funding will boost jobs in the construction industry––leading to more job security for construction workers. As a key cause of anxiety and depression, improved job security in construction could in itself assist with improving mental well-being of employees.

What Can Employers Do?

From employer associations such as the Master Builders Association, to trade unions, industry schemes such as the National Safety Council of Australia and not-for-profits like MATES in Construction, there’s a network of organisations in Australia that improve education and support for mental health within the industry.

Such organisations work to raise awareness, continue research and offer support to those at risk. But what changes can employers make to improve working conditions and empower those in the construction industry to look after their colleagues?

Justin Geange, a plumber by trade, has worked in the construction industry for 25 years and has been diagnosed with bipolar type two. Job uncertainty was a major factor that led to Justin attempting to take his own life in 2013.

When asked how employers can better support their employees, Justin responded, 'Employers need to provide at least an Employee Assistant Program (EAP) or some support service for workers who may be experiencing short or long term mental health challenges'.

In addition, Justin suggested they should 'engage in open conversations pre-start' or host 'safety meetings to reduce the stigma' that surrounds mental health amongst construction workers.

One of the most important steps to take is to increase awareness throughout the organisation of the signs that someone might be struggling and the best action to take. As Justin suggests, this could be included in training sessions, and inductions at the start of any new project.

External organisations can assist with running training programs and workshops to equip the entire team to address mental health concerns. These include the National Workplace Program delivered by beyondblue, Mindful Employer with SANE Australia, or MATES in Construction.

Time will tell if sufficient action is taken as the industry continues to power ahead. It will take a long-term vision to implement the changes required and a collaborative approach between construction companies and the relevant organisations to support mental health training and awareness-raising initiatives. 


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